If there’s one thing that’s become apparent over the past 80 years of comic book publishing, it’s that death sells. The demise of a beloved character can create great interest in a series, as well as potentially delivering an emotional impact that the audience will remember. The whole job of storytelling is to evoke a response from the receiver, and death is one of only two experience that every person will face during the course of their lives. By the 1980s, it became a commercial move to kill off a popular character and then either replace them with somebody new in the role or simply note the hole their absence leaves behind; on certain occasions, you’d get both.
Among other things, one of the selling points of the brand new Marvel Comics Group was that it attempted to create a more plausible sense of reality in its titles than the competition. The stories typically took place in real world settings, the power levels of the assorted heroes weren’t quite as outlandish as other super heroes, there was an emphasis on individual personalities for the characters (even if those personalities were relatively thin.) Early on, and for many years well into the start of the 1980s, Marvel’s reputation concerning death was that it approached it seriously. Whenever a major character died, hero or villain, that death was meant to be permanent and eternal. (This is not to be confused with “super-villain deaths”, those issues that ended with a villain falling off a pier, their body never recovered but presumed dead. Those were simply a convenient way around the Comics Code provision that evil could in no way triumph while allowing the character to remain at liberty for some future story.)
This reputation was earned by the manner in which Marvel treated most of their character deaths up until a certain point. But where did it start? Well, the very first death of a main character took place in SGT FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS #4. As a war title, perhaps this seemed like an inevitability. After all, for all of the times Fury and his Howlers waded into enemy action, it would be totally unrealistic that none of them would ever get hurt, right? Even this early on, the choice was made to show that the Howlers weren’t indestructible, and that every time they went on a mission, the jeopardy was real. This development was so noteworthy that editor Stan Lee blurbs it on the cover to this issue.
The Howlers themselves were a pretty diverse bunch for the era, reflecting Jack Kirby’s experiences both during the war and after it. The Howlers were even an integrated unit, with Gabe Jones being the first heroic character of color to be featured in the Marvel line. The Howlers came from all different backgrounds and social strata in the manner of Kirby’s earlier Boy Commandos, but they were united in their hatred of the Nazi cause and their love of a good fight. Among that initial composition of characters was John “Junior” Juniper, an Ivy League scholar who looked young for his age, hence his nickname.
And in all honesty, the choice to bump off Junior feels like a last minute impulse to me, given that it happens on Page 21 of a 22 page story with no real foreshadowing. Consequently, it is appropriately shocking, especially for a comic book published in 1963. In those days, by and large, the good guys didn’t get killed in stories such as this. And in fact, Lee and Kirby have to dance around things a bit due to teh Code; they can never outright say that Júnior has been killed. Whether this was something that Kirby had planned all along or was something he or Lee thought up partway through the issue, the event hits like a thunderbolt, and would reverberate through the next couple of issues, where Fury would carry the weight of Junior’s death and the unit would receive replacements to fill his open position. Likely, he was chosen due to the fact that he wasn’t as colorful or individual as the other Howlers–he was the easiest character to miss.
What’s even more remarkable is the fact that, in all the years since, Junior Juniper has never been brought back. There haven’t been any embittered relatives going after Nick Fury for revenge, no shocking revelation that Junior was somehow still alive and working undercover. No, he was dead, and he stayed dead, one of the few comic book characters to truly do so. He’s mostly been forgotten now, as all of his appearances were in comic books that are now sixty years old, but his position remains unassailable. He was the first fatality of the Marvel Age.
6 thoughts on “The First Marvel Fatality”
“The first fatality of the Marvel Age”–other than Uncle Ben?
I think Uncle Ben wouldn’t count a, s his was essentially a “death by origin story” — that is death occurred in the very first Spider-Man story and was a central aspect of Spider-Man morphing from a would-be professional entertainer to a super-hero, out of guilt for his failure to stop the man who would kill Uncle Ben. In other words, by the end of the story it was clear Ben Parker would not be a recurring character in the series. Junior, on the other hand, had appeared in the first three issues of SF&HHC and most of the fourth before getting killed in action and his death was not central to the story or to the origin of Sgt. Fury or the Howlers. It was treated as a random aspect of war that could have happened to any of them, although in reality he was taken out due to being “expendable” in the eyes of his co-creators. I wonder if Lee &/or Kirby intended to do away with Junior all along or was it really a “last minute decision” while plotting out this issue.
Based on Kirby’s actual combat experiences, I’d guess it might have been the former, that he purposefully created Junior with the intent to kill him off, and not in a typical comicbook dramatic means of a heroic sacrifice, but just one bullet from an enemy soldier who may not have even specifically targeted Junior. Just one aspect of actual warfare and perhaps one that Kirby likely experienced and wanted to include in at least one issue in the series, to show that it wasn’t really all fun & games. And to make it more impactful, it had to come at least a few issues into the series, when readers were less likely to expect it. Then again, maybe it was Lee determining, “hey, this guy’s too boring. Let’s get rid of him and replace him with someone who’ll be more fun to write.” I don’t know if Lee or Kirby ever wrote or said anything about what went into having Junior killed off.
And not too long afterwards, Pamela would also perish in another random act of war during a bombing raid. Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos was a weird mix of outlandish action adventure and occasional genuine pathos, touching on the genuine tragedies of war. Walking a bit of a fine line between escapist fantasy fare and acknowledgement of the sort of horrors that millions of people in real life have had to deal with.
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Pamela’s death packs way more punch than Junior’s did. I’m really surprised nobody ever brought up her or her titled family again other than a brief cameo in Dr. Strange years later.
For that matter, I’m surprised we haven’t gotten any offspring that I’m aware of, like a next generation Dugan, Ralston or Pinkerton (I’m now waiting for another commenter to find someone I’ve missed).
Of course two years after the series started, the first annual showed the remaining Howlers would survive WW II so no risk of death after that.
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In a message board post from almost 20 years ago – that I couldn’t find now even if I wanted to – I suggested the original Scorpio by Steranko was clearly supposed to be Junior. It was a joke, but some other poster got mad. No jokes allowed on the internet!
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The last paragraph all but guarantees that within the next calendar year, you will be pitched on no less than 3 occasions the rejuvenation of Junior Juniper
By now, any old enough to have been an actual WWII veteran would also be old enough to have adult great-great-grandchildren. My dad, born in 1940, now has 3 adult great grandchildren , via one of my younger brothers (born in 1963) and his middle son (born in 1984), who first became a father of one child with one girlfriend, then married another woman who gave birth to twins in 2003. Of course, these days there aren’t too many actual World War II veterans still around. The last surviving U.S. Veteran of World War I died on February 27, 2011, at age 110, as per this site: https://www.history.com/news/frank-buckles-last-u-s-world-war-i-vet-dies-at-110.